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The South African Science Lens® Competition uses photography to bring together art and science

  • By Staff Writer, SAASTA.

The South African Science Lens® competition celebrates the wonder of science through photography, and shows how science and art can be seamless allies in communicating about the world around us. The South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), a business unit of the National Research Foundation, and its partner in the 11th round of the SA Science Lens® competition, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), are pleased to announce the winners of the latest round of the competition.

Mr. Kervin Prayag's "Meowy Muse" took first place in Science as Art.
Prof. Bruce Cairncross's "Happy Faces" wins the Science Close-Up category.
Thilo Beck's "Small scale surgery" wins the Science in Action category.
Morgan Trimble's "Newlands Spring's Community Spirit". .

Mr Kervin Prayag, with his photo entitled “Meowy Muse”, further brought science and art together to take first place in the Science as Art category. An autopsy of a deceased caracal at the University of Cape Town was the muse for an artist, Sujay Sanan, putting together an exhibition called “A Place I Know”. The paintings at his exhibit diarised the landscapes, flora, and fauna of the Western Cape, in a unique way. In the artist’s own words, “while these works document what I fear might be lost, they are also filled with optimism”, and give a positive account of the current state of wildlife conservation.

Prof. Bruce Cairncross, from the University of Johannesburg, saw theatrical flare in his winning Science Close-Up photo entitled “Happy Faces”. The smiling face that looks like a theatrical mask is actually a picture of different inorganic geological minerals. The white and purple crusts that look like a mask are tiny crystals of fluorite, a calcium fluoride species. The brown background is the mineral goethite, an iron-hydroxide, which is typically dark-brown. This sample of minerals comes from a fluorite mine in the Gauteng.

Science in Action focuses on capturing science as it happens. The winning photo was Thilo Beck’s “Small scale surgery”, giving us a glimpse into the great efforts of science to help us understand ecosystems. Here a tiny white-browed sparrow weaver (Plocepasser mahali) in the Kalahari is undergoing surgery to implant a miniature data logger. To make the procedure easier and less stressful for the birds, scientists catch them in their roosting chambers at night, and anaesthetise them, make a tiny incision, place the data logger in the bird and stich them closed all within a few minutes. It has only been possible in the last few years to build small enough data loggers to fit them into small birds without constraining them and inhibiting their flight. This study will give valuable information to help to understand a small piece of the Kalahari ecosystem.

The winning entry of the Dignity of All South Africans, the special category for the 2020 competition, showed us that practical science doesn’t need to be high tech. Morgan Trimble won with her photo called “Newlands Spring’s Community Spirit”. Emphasising how important water is to human dignity, she showed us how, in the face of Cape Town’s water crisis that threatened dignified access to clean water, a community member created a solution that allowed more users to collect water from Newlands Spring in an efficient manner. The simple pipe system made out of PVC pipe, string, wire, and corks transformed one awkward, muddy access point to 26 points under which to fill water collection jugs. People from different communities came together to cooperate in a shared communal space.

In celebration of its 50-year anniversary, the HSRC also selected a special social science photo award, choosing Dhurti Dheda’s “Connecting Worlds”. The photo shows a street in the inner-city suburb of Doornfontein in Johannesburg, decorated by giant metallic “flowers” or satellite dishes. This is an impoverished area of immigrants and students, and the multitude of satellite dishes shows the extent of how many people are occupying small apartment spaces. As satellite television generally includes programmes from around the globe, it allows many immigrants to receive entertainment from their home countries, connecting them to their people in a foreign country.

This year was the first time SAASTA and the HSRC teamed up to present the photographic competition, celebrating all natural and social sciences in the 20-year anniversary of the NRF and the 50-year anniversary of the HSRC. Through the SA Science Lens® competition, SAASTA and the HSRC aim to encourage researchers and scientists to invite the public into their world through inspiring curiosity in beautiful, dramatic or interesting photographs of their research. The competition also aims to encourage the public to appreciate and find science in their everyday lives, showing how they can view the world around them from a scientific perspective.

The full results of the competition can be found at www.saasta.ac.za/competitions/sa-science-lens Original photos are also available for publication on request.

GetSETgo March 2020

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